Man on table hounded by men with Big Brother sign
Daniel Duque-Estrada, Brady Morales-Woolery, Joseph Patrick O’Malley, Megan Soledad and David Bryant in Michael Gene Sullivan’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. Credit: Kevin Berne

George Orwell’s prophetic novel 1984 headed up the World Book Day 2009 “fib list” of books people lied about having read. But now, whether you fibbed about it, haven’t read it, or have forgotten it from your high school English days, you must see the dramatic, piercing and memorable adaptation by Michael Gene Sullivan of Orwell’s ever-more crucial book at the Aurora Theatre.

1984, Aurora Theatre, through Dec. 10

Sullivan’s adaptation of 1984 is an essential piece of theater. With first-rate direction by award-winner Barbara Damasheck (The Children) and a superb cast, 1984 captures the stark exposition of Big Brother’s totalitarian state, revealing that Orwell’s predictions have become even closer to reality than when first published in 1949. In our days of AI, fake news, dog-whistles, book banning, hidden cameras and microphones, the pressure to conform, and the ever-looming peril of wanna-be authoritarian dictators, Orwell’s message of the value of truth and the freedom of individual, independent thought is even more vital.

In 1984, the world is divided into three ruling autocratic super-states seemingly in perpetual war. Big Brother is the dictator of protagonist Winston Smith’s (Joseph Patrick O’Malley) state, where the “thought police” control its citizens’ every idea and action. Smith’s job in the “Ministry of Truth” is to rewrite historical records to conform to Big Brother’s fluctuating version of history. But he dreams of rebelling against the Party’s rule despite the likelihood of being caught.

As the play opens, the depressing, paint-peeling industrial gray walls of the room set the stage (designed by Jeff Rowlings) for the harrowing mood of the drama. Smith’s arms are already tied up to electric shock wires. He is forced to recount his traitorous actions. He had kept a forbidden diary. With his secret lover Julia (Megan Soledad), he joins a shadowy resistance group, who turn out to be government agents, leading to their arrest.

In a creative exemplar of stagecraft, Smith’s story is acted out by other performers, notably the outstanding Daniel Duque-Estrada. While simultaneously, actor Joseph Patrick O’Malley as Winston (Colonialism is Terrible, but Pho is Delicious) can only watch his double with apprehension. The other actors who play the inquisitors, David Bryant, Duque-Estrada, Brady Morales-Woolery (Born With Teeth), Warren David Keith (Widower’s Houses), are equally excellent.

Adaptor Michael Gene Sullivan, an accomplished playwright, Guggenheim fellow, and director and actor, adapted 1984 20 years ago. After a bit of a slow start, it’s played worldwide, including in China and Ukraine. As an actor, he’s appeared in Aurora’s Widower’s Houses and Satellites, among many other roles.

It is a testament to George Orwell (1903–1950), the English essayist, journalist, critic, and novelist, that his 1984 and Animal Farm (written in 1945) are still devastatingly scary. I wish we could read or see them without referencing our current political environment. But as I squirmed in my seat as Winston Smith screamed in torture, I was thinking about some of our political leaders who wish they were Big Brother. That is what makes 1984 such a significant and vital theatrical event.

Live performances of 1984 at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre run through Dec. 10, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. The play is 2 hours 10 minutes long, including one 10-minute intermission. Two performances per week (Wednesday evenings and Sunday matinees) are designated mask-required performances. For all other performances, masks will be encouraged but not required. Tickets are $20-65, plus some discounts. Streaming and post-show discussions are available on specific nights. For information and tickets, visit the theater’s website or call 510-843-4822.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...